Friday, January 11, 2013

Sex, Neuroscience and Walkable Urbanism: Eight Simple, Free Transport Solutions for Healthier, Wealthier Cities

A full house at last night's lecture

Last night, I attended the lecture “Sex, Neuroscience and Walkable Urbanism: Eight Simple, Free Transport Solutions for Healthier, Wealthier Cities” by Jeffrey Tumlin who is a world renowned transportation and urban planner. The lecture was hosted by the SFU City Program and TransLink.

Tumlin started the evening by saying that he believes that the City of Vancouver in particular and Metro Vancouver is one of the few regions in the world that is embracing 21st century urban design principles. Though as he is currently working in North Vancouver around the Phibbs Exchange area, which he called sad, he understands that our region still has room for improvement.

One of Tumlin’s greatest points from the whole evening was that we’ve built a transportation system and built form that is hostel to human social, emotional, and physical health. Our auto-oriented communities are killing us, making us fat, and making us unhappy. He sees that the solution is to build human-scale communities and base their built form and transportation system around walking. He also noted a bunch of facts that prove walkable cities make people happier, more social, and healthier. In fact, the point he made several times during the evening was to build communities which make walking a pleasure for everyone, all the time.

Tumlin noted that most communities and regions have vision documents or official community plans that extol the virtues of mixed-use and walkable community design, but the actual bylaws and design guidelines still active encourage auto-oriented sprawl.

The name of the lecture is based on the fact that outdoor exercise like walking to a park, to work, or to the shops releases oxytocin in our bodies which makes us happier and more trusting. Driving releases chemicals that actually makes us angry and stressed.

By the way, Tumlin points out that you don’t need Vancouver density to build a walkable community. Four-storey apartments and mixed-use buildings with ground-floor commercial do the trick, combined with a variety of other housing options.

Tumlin then went on to explain eight simply points that, if applied, will change how we design our transportation systems and communities for the better.

1. Measure what Matters
Transportation planner use service levels to measure how well a transportation system is working. More travel lanes with more free-flowing cars is a good thing when using these service levels. Besides looking at mobility, transportation planners need to focus on accessibility which is how people can get to the things and services they want by walking or other modes of travel. This thinking will result in more vibrant, walkable commercial areas and safe, welcoming residential areas. Some of the other metrics that he talked about using was retail per square foot for commercial areas and quality of life for residential areas. Planners should also ensure that they use metrics which measure if the transportation system is equitable to all people and ecological sustainable.

2/3. Transportation Models
Tumlin spent a good amount of time point out that transportation models which are currently being used to predict future travel demand are no more accurate than tarot cards. Most traffic models use out of date data and wrong assumptions. To make these models better, they need to look more closely at the effects of mixed-use and transit-oriented development, become multimodal, and capture the feedback loop of more travel lanes inducing more traffic which leads to even more congestion. His main point was that current traffic models lead to communities building sprawl and not walkable neighbourhoods: they are self-fulfilling prophecies.

4. Adopting the Right Street Design Manual
Most communities use street design manuals based on rural highway design. Rural highways become safer with wider lanes, grade-separation, and shoulder; but the opposite is true in urban areas. Urban street design suggests that you need to increase the perception of danger for motorist to make streets safer for all road users. This is a fact. His point is that communities need to adopt an urban street design manual which also includes accommodating all modes of transportation with equity, safety, and dignity.

5. Plant Trees

6/7. Price it Right: Parking and Roads
Tumlin made the point that we use market pricing everywhere to balance supply and demand except when it comes to roads and parking. For those, we use Soviet-style planning which leads to a host of issues like endless road building and endless congestion which suck billions of dollars from the economy. To eliminate congestion, only 10% of auto trips need to shift modes or disappear. Tumlin says that we should price our roads at the lowest price possible which will eliminate congestion.

When it comes to parking, Tumlin suggests that we do away with minimum parking requirement and use technology and market pricing to ensure that there are always a few empty spaces available in commercial areas. He also believes we should built “Park Once” districts which share common parking in otherwise walkable areas.

8. Create a New Vision
Tumlin says that we need to stop believing the lies from the auto industry about how driving gives us freedom and gets us sex, we need to find a new vision for our cities. Some of Tumlin’s suggestions include:
-Looking at meeting human needs at a human scale
-Making walking a pleasure everywhere for everyone
-Making cycling comfortable for all ages with separated and off-street bike lanes
-Meeting the needs of daily life by making them a walk away
-Making transit fast, frequent, reliable and dignified
-Ensuring that everyone knows and loves their neighbourhood
-Making sure food and energy are local
-Building communities where social networks are fostered
-Building ubiquitous beauty in our urban fabric

I enjoy these lectures, but I always get disappointed after leaving. I wish our elected officials would attend these lectures. I wonder what changes we would see if the Ministry of Transportation or old-time Councillors listened to these lectures and embraced these ideas.

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